General plan off to shaky start

Hiring a consulting firm, the easiest step, already proving difficult

Members of the Chico City Council decided Tuesday (Feb. 20) that no fewer than three of them should be involved in selecting a consulting firm to prepare the city’s new general plan.

Selecting the consultant has almost nothing to do with the general plan, per se. Usually it’s done by city staff. But some councilmembers—Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl, especially—are so anxious to avoid the kind of after-the-fact bickering and maneuvering that followed the creation of the city’s 1994 plan that they want to be involved from the get-go—or even before the get-go.

The occasion was a backgrounding from Planning Director Steve Peterson regarding the city’s issuance of a request for proposals (RFP) seeking bids from consulting firms. The city has budgeted $1,275,000 for updating its general plan, a process that is expected to take 30 months.

No sooner had Peterson started his presentation than Bertagna interrupted: Given the importance of this discussion, he said, he was “shocked that people aren’t flocking from all over the area to hear this.”

Peterson tried to assure him that finding a consultant was just a prelude to the actual general plan process and that staff’s selection recommendation would come back to the council for final approval, but Bertagna and Wahl were adamant. Eventually it was decided to agendize the matter later so that Bertagna and fellow councilmembers Scott Gruendl and Mary Flynn could be officially appointed to the selection committee.

Peterson said his goal was to get council agreement on a list of subject areas the consultant should be expected to cover in the plan. The state requires that land use, housing, transportation, noise, open space, conservation and safety be addressed, but other, optional subjects can be added, Peterson said.

Staff had identified five such optional elements that, Peterson said, people in Chico as well as public officials seemed especially concerned about: community design, economic development, historic preservation, sustainability and the downtown area.

After much discussion, the council agreed to include all of these optional elements in the RFP and hope to find a quality consultant who would cover them all for the budgeted amount.

The council also learned that City Manager Greg Jones intended to include an “infrastructure finance plan” in the general plan. As Peterson explained it, the plan would detail specific capital-project costs associated with the general plan and identify how they are to be financed and when the funding would be needed.

Bertagna liked that idea. “That would be a key component of making it a planning document that could be used by the council,” he said.

The city is a couple of months behind Butte County in its general plan timetable, Peterson said, but that’s OK. The county is already doing data collection that will help the city, and the county and municipalities working on general plans have all agreed to share information and work together.

Flynn wanted to be sure that the selection committee sought out consulting firms known for doing innovative work. Peterson said applicants would be asked to detail their experience, “and we could look for innovative plans there.”

There was some discussion of a General Plan Advisory Committee like the one formed to work on the 1994 plan, with Peterson noting that the council would be addressing the issue after it selects a consultant.

The 1994 committee was made up of a cross-section of citizens from the development, environmental, business and arts communities of Chico, but the compromise plan it eventually created came under fire following the election of a conservative council majority in the mid-1990s.